The Food Systems Research Group recently had the opportunity to visit an experimental orchard for the research of hardy locally grown fruits and nuts at the Hidden Mesa Open Space, just south of Parker. This orchard, funded through the Tri-County Health Department and a CO Health Grant, has been active since January of 2011 in planting, growing, grafting, and researching hardy varieties of berries, apples, peaches, nuts, and other fruits to find niche crops that can thrive in our Colorado backyards. Plants are naturally tested against wind, pests, seasonal changes, weather fluctuations, and soil compositions and grown through a variety of methods to identify varieties that can be easily and efficiently grown by the public. The experimental orchard, started with a $120,000 grant and the committed work of Andy Hough, his wife Kim, and countless volunteers, tests, demonstrates, and promotes local food production through experimental planting of over 450 varieties of fruits and nuts—many of which have been stellar performers in the Colorado climate.
The Hidden Mesa Open Space, just off of Highway 83, is a beautiful 1200 acre plot at the Hidden Mesa trailhead. Three high tunnel greenhouses are flanked by rows of apple trees, peach trees, and raspberry and blackberry bushes, with vegetable plots, herbal gardens, and covered, raised berry beds nestled around the orchard. The high tunnel greenhouses can produce crops at least a month longer through the fall than the orchard rows, turning out varieties of raspberries, blackberries, strawberries, cherries, figs, apricots, peaches, and goji berries. Each high tunnel is an experiment in root stocks, growing techniques, and climate needs for hardy varieties from around the world. Most of the greenhouse varieties are not mature yet, needing three years for active maturity, but many have begun to flower and fruit through this season. Vertical planting and fan pruning are two techniques widely used in the three greenhouses, most with fantastic results. Fan planting of fruit trees, like apricots and peaches, allow for more sunlight penetration, easier maintenance, and faster harvests. Vertical planting, with wire track support, has worked particularly well with berries—one large vertical planting tube can hold 70-80 strawberry plants (planted by plug) each, and can be picked into November. Vertical tube planting can be easily modified to work for CO backyards for high harvest yields of berries, herbs, and vegetables in minimal space.
Improvements to the high tunnels since January 2011 work to combat intense wind damage off the mesa, erosion, rabbits, rodents, insects, and water drainage. Fermigators for fertilization are at the base of each greenhouse and orchard row, allowing for natural fertilization of the entire greenhouse or row through the irrigation system. Solar panels salvaged from the local community will be used to heat and ventilate the greenhouses next season, while the sides of the greenhouses can be opened to let busy pollinators (bumble bees, honey bees, and carpenter ants) through.
Grafting experiments with hardy fruit trees is one of the newest growing ventures for the Hidden Mesa Open Space experimental orchard. Andy and Kim have had luck with several apple and peach varieties, and they’ve begun encouraging volunteers to learn the technique. Grafting experiments and root stock experiments often happen in the raised beds outside of the greenhouses before successful plants are planted in the orchard rows. Dwarf root stocks of blueberries and lingonberries are experimental now, and hardier German varieties will be tried next season.
In the orchard rows, hardy apple varieties of honey crisp and liberty apples are dwarfed or fan pruned along vertical lines for greater sunlight penetration. Fruit walls of plums, apricots, peaches, and pears are hardy, later blooming varieties, but Andy and his volunteer team hope to devise a row covering to protect the fruit trees later into the season. A row of currents and gooseberries, hardy to at least zone 3, are very successful, as are seeded table, wine, and juice grapes bred for colder climates.
Desiccating winds are the biggest problems along the orchard rows, so orchard rows are spaced to accommodate shade tolerant and dwarf species along with fruit and nut trees requiring more sunlight. Brambles of several varieties of black raspberries, white raspberries (yum!), everberries, and blackberries thrived over the summer, and many varieties faired well last winter. Elderberries and Hardy Bush Cherries have been star performers and are wonderful for CO edible landscapes and winter colds. One of the orchard’s most unusual but most prolific performers has been the Sea Buckhorn, a native to Europe used in vitamin C drinks, teas, tinctures, and cosmetics. This tart orange berry is very high in Vitamins A, E, and C, healthy oils, and is extremely high yielding to -40F temperatures. Andy has high hopes of sea buckhorn being a new and prolific addition to the CO local food landscape.
Hazelnuts and other nuts are bush trained along the back orchard rows. Many of these crops have faired well, but Andy is particularly interested in hazelnuts for their hardiness, potential as a grain product and soy replacement, and wood value for hardwoods and furniture. Chestnuts (a cross between American and Chinese varieties) may also be useful as a grain product, particularly in place of wood. The upcoming winter season will be a great indication of how well nut varieties can survive in CO weather fluctuations.
The experimental orchard at Hidden Mesa Open Space is designed to be an education and demonstration site for adults. Andy and Kim encourage volunteers to come with a passion and an interest in growing techniques, local food needs, and camaraderie. Master Gardeners and herbalists alike are also encouraged to bring their knowledge, elbow-grease, and research ideas to the site. A Master Gardener plot next to the greenhouses produces thousands of pounds of food for the local food bank (over 5000 lbs donated in 2013) and herbalist gardens experiment with hardy herbs for winter health and children’s health. Harvests of the experimental fruit crops from the greenhouses and the orchards are often given to volunteers or the local food bank, and any future large harvests may be sold for maintenance money of the orchard. The orchard site is transitioning from the planning, building, and planting phase since January 2011 into a maintenance and research phase. Andy, Kim, and their team of volunteers are very hopeful for the research, ideas, and thriving CO varieties that will bloom from the orchard in the many seasons to come.
To contact Andy Hough for questions or volunteer information, email Andy at firstname.lastname@example.org.